Thinking Again About The Production of Genius
I am a fan of Oliver Sacks, and will read just about anything he has written – though, interestingly enough, I find myself so far unable to make my way through Migraine. Perhaps this has something to do with the cover illustration of a mosaic aura, which twice induced an aura (scintillating fortification) and subsequent migraine in me. If you are not a migraine sufferer, you might find this slide show of migraine art interesting, for it does depict the migraineur’s experience at the onset of aura. Migraineurs, be warned: viewing the paintings in the slideshow could possibly be triggering for a migraine. Regular botox injections (every three months) have more or less eliminated my auras, if not my migraines though, alas, it appears that viewing the slideshow was still able to induce the headache if not the aura that precedes it.
Well, I find I have thoroughly digressed myself right in the very first sentence of this post, for what I meant to write about is another Oliver Sacks book entirely, and then not even exactly about the book.
A few weeks ago while visiting a friend in DC I happily spent some time in Politics & Prose, a very fine bookstore. Do visit when you are in DC. There I picked up a copy of sweet little book by Sacks, “Oaxaca Journal”, which is essentially a fancied up version of a journal he kept during a ten day ferning expedition with the New York chapter of the American Fern Society. Ask your friends to read your journal from your ten day ferning expedition and you will likely be met with large yawns, but Oliver Sacks gets a book contract. It was a fast read, a lot of fun and, as usual with Sacks, I was entertained, educated, and was constantly astounded at the depth and breadth of the man’s learning.
But here’s the part of the book I want to share with you, for the purposes of this blog, because it got me thinking about a blog post I wrote years ago on the production of genius.
At one point during their trip, Sacks and his companions visit of Don Isaac Vásquez,
…a master weaver whose carpets and blankets, and use of natural dyes, have become famous outside Mexico. He lives and works with his extended family…The children will be trained in weaving and dyeing from an early age. They will be surrounded by it, imbibe it, consciously or unconsciously, every minute of their lives. Their skills, their identities, will be shaped from the start, and not just by the family tradition but by the whole village, the local traditon, in which they grow up.
This is how you make a master weaver. Or one way, anyway. My point, however, is that the magnificent carpets and blankets of the Vásquez family are the production of years of specific training and expectation that people will grow up to participate in and be good at various aspects of the whole process involved in generating these goods.
So, how do you make a master scientist or engineer, then? Years ago, when I first started blogging, a commenter (okay, he was my brother) opined that “greatness is streaky, rare, and fairly unpredictable”. This, I thought, was bullshit. I referred my readers to Linda Nochlin:
…the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist…It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. (from “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” in Woman in Sexist Society ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran 1971)
And then I said
The way that [my brother] describes the appearance of “greatness” in science – streaky, rare, unpredictable – would seem to agree with this notion of genius as atemporal, a mysterious power that we cannot control or generate. It is this pernicious belief that, carried to its extreme, leads individuals like Lawrence Summers to shake his head sadly and proclaim that women are just mathematically inferior to men.
I contend that we do, indeed, have the ability to identify, nurture, and develop promising young individuals into great contributors in science and engineering. Out of this general program of development and nurturing will appear some truly outstanding individuals. We’ve been doing this for decades already. Unfortunately, we’ve only been doing it mostly for white men, mostly for middle- to upper-class individuals. The results, however, have been spectacular for the members of that tiny elite. U. S. science and engineering programs have yielded amazing individuals and amazing results.
[My brother] claims that we are “as likely to get a few really great guys as a few really great gals over a span of a decade or so. Greatness is just that unpredictable.” Sadly, this is not the case. Greatness, at least as defined in the U. S. scientific establishment, has been so darn predictable for decades that it’s disgusting. Look at the annual elections to the National Academy of Sciences or National Academy of Engineering. White men, white men, white men, all mentored and promoted and rewarded by each other in a cozy, clubby, old-boys network. I’m telling you, the system works, they have figured out how to take the raw talent and produce skilled researchers. It’s just that they only do it for the ones who look most like themselves.
We could do better, if we wanted to. I know there’s a lot of noise being made about how to more effectively market careers in science and engineering to members of underrepresented groups but I really don’t think marketing is solution. There has to be in place an entire culture of expectation that everyone really can do these types of things, and do them well, and moreover, everyone is expected to. Marketing may be a part of that culture but marketing alone will not get the job done as long as large segments of our population continue to believe that white skin and dangly appendages make the brain magically more mathematically gifted.